Burma The Silence of Bogalay

Thousands of corpses are floating in Burma's Irrawaddy Delta, but the country's military junta is not taking care of survivors. It would be hard to surpass the cynicism of the generals. An eyewitness report from the Irrawaddy Delta.

Two Burmese women sit on their haunches at the edge of the gravel road that leads to Bogalay in Burma's Irrawaddy Delta, the region of the country hardest-hit by Cyclone Nargis . They've been waiting here in the pouring rain for hours, next to a rice field a few kilometers outside the city. They hold their windbreakers over their heads and talk in low voices.

The women work for a German aid organization that has been present in Burma for 10 years. They came here alone; their German project manager had to stay behind in Rangoon. The organization is tolerated by the military junta, but it can't really work like it's supposed to. The women have been in the Bogalay area for 48 hours. They're feeling more frustrated with every passing hour.

They want to move 70 tons of rice, dried beans, and packaged drinking water into the city. The women have been told to check out the situation and make the necessary preparations for the planned relief effort. Unfortunately they haven't gotten very far. They asked for an appointment with the local authorities, but weren't allowed to see them.

They visited camps where thousands of persons left homeless by the cyclone are staying in desolate conditions, plagued by diarrhea, unable to do anything for themselves. They saw how representatives of the military junta came to these camps to count the living (but not the dead, who are no longer any good to them).

Soldiers shoved ballot forms for the country's constitutional referendum at survivors. The referendum, which was postponed in the delta due to the storm, is to be held here on May 24 -- despite the fact that the government-controlled press has reported that the outcome of the election, which was held in most of the country on May 10 as originally planned, has already been decided. Allegedly there was a voter turnout of 99 percent, with 92 percent of the Burmese electorate voting for the junta.

They saw how corrugated sheet iron was distributed to well-off families so that they could repair the roofs of their stone houses, which were only lightly damaged by the storm, along the main streets. This way everything will look neat and tidy whenever the generals drive by in their dark limousines.

They saw how camps were set up with tents made of blue plastic sheeting. But there is no one living in them. They will be filled with supporters of the regime just before the generals come to visit, accompanied by state television and reporters from the junta-controlled newspaper New Light of Myanmar. This is to prove to the people of Burma and the world that the generals have the situation in the Irrawaddy Delta under control.

"It started with a natural disaster," the smaller of the two women says, fighting back her tears and trying to keep her anger under control. "Now it's only about politics. What the junta is doing here is just unbelievably despicable."

The women are standing at the side of the gravel road outside Bogalay because their desperation has driven them to try a different tactic. In a last-ditch effort, they are attempting to have the relief goods smuggled into the devastated city. They have had the rice, beans, and water reloaded onto trucks belonging to the Burmese Red Cross. These trucks will be able to enter the exclusion zone since they belong to a Burmese aid organization.

But no trucks have come by yet. Indeed, nobody seems to be coming to Bogalay at all. The women are fearful that their stratagem may have been discovered. They think the military may have stopped the trucks somewhere along the way and the drivers may be stuck there.

Bogalay is in the Irrawaddy Delta, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) southwest of Rangoon, in the middle of green rice fields. It is this area that was hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis, which struck in the early morning hours of Saturday, May 3. Winds of up to 230 kilometers per hour (143 miles per hour) tore through the delta region and caused huge waves to surge upriver. One of them struck Bogalay, knocking palm trees over like cornstalks and crashing wooden boats into houses. Huts were simply washed away.

It's eerily quiet in Bogalay. There is no sound of chain saws, excavators, or bulldozers. The Burmese army has five helicopters, but we haven't seen a single one of them all day. There's not even the sound of birds chirping. Survivors tell us that the birds have been silent since the storm.

Around 200,000 people inhabited this port city and the some 500 villages in the surrounding area. Most of them were rice farmers, living in palm huts on the banks of the Irrawaddy and its thousands of small tributaries in the delta. Hardly any huts were left standing after the storm. Countless bodies can be seen floating in the river. Tens of thousands of people died here. The overall death toll may be as high as 130,000. "Why should we fish them out?" a survivor asks. "We're hardly able to help ourselves."

For more than two weeks now, Bogalay has, for all practical intents and purposes, been cut off from the delivery of relief supplies. The degree of cynicism shown by the junta generals is criminal. The survivors are aware that the international media are reporting about them on a daily basis, that millions of dollars and tons of relief supplies have been donated, and that much of it has already arrived in Burma. But thus far they haven't seen any financial assistance, medical supplies, or even rice to eat.

But it's not just foreign relief supplies which are prohibited in Bogalay; foreigners are banned too. The junta has posted soldiers at hastily erected checkpoints. They stand on bridges or at turnoffs onto roads leading out into the delta and check every vehicle that comes by, shouting "Naingchartar?" ("Foreigner on board?") Anyone who is not Burmese or able to produce an official permit has to get out.

We reach the city just after dark. It took us three attempts to get there. Earlier in the day we were stopped by soldiers who noted down the numbers of our passports, even though they couldn't read them (it probably didn't help that they were holding the passports upside down). They ordered our driver to turn around on the spot and go back to Rangoon.

We had bounced along on gravel roads for hours on end, seeing nothing but rice fields and people standing by the road begging. We tried to keep out of sight in the back of the share taxi we were travelling in. Our Burmese helpers laid jackets and blankets over us whenever a roadblock came into view.

'We Need a Roof over our Head'

In Bogalay we are taken in by a doctor who lives on an inconspicuous side street. It's eight o'clock in the evening and the treatment room is full of patients. A woman in a torn sarong rushes in. She is from one of the villages along the Irrawaddy that was completely destroyed. She has traveled four hours by boat to get here. She is carrying a child in her arms. It is her grandson. Her daughter, whose baby she is trying to save, and eight other members of her family were killed by the storm. For a week now her grandson has had a fever and diarrhea. The child vomits and starts to cry.

The doctor speaks to her in a calm, comforting voice. There's not much else he can do -- his medicine cabinet looks like it's been looted. If an epidemic of dysentery or typhus were in fact to break out here, he wouldn't be able to do anything but flee himself.

The doctor takes us to a monk, a young abbot. His head is shaved and he wears old-fashioned glasses. He doesn't ask us anything and greets us with a gentle smile. He is wearing a dark red robe, sitting on a throne-like chair in his monastery. In good times the faithful come here, kneel down in front of him three times, and offer him alms and food to improve their karma. It is their belief that the more they give, the easier their next life will be. If a disaster occurs, they believe it is because of something they did in their previous life.

At night, when everyone else is asleep, the abbot holds a transistor radio to his ear and listens to the BBC and Radio Free Asia. The stations are banned by the military regime but almost everyone in Burma listens to them anyway. Bogalay is mentioned frequently this particular night.

Before sunrise the abbot gives us a guided tour of the neighborhood. A school next to the monastery has been turned into a camp for 1,400 persons left homeless by the storm. The people have used desks and chairs to make beds for themselves. They crouch in muddy puddles of water in the school's dining hall. Rain drips down through the corrugated sheet iron roof. Children lie in brackish water and women cook thin soups over open fires. Firewood is the only thing not in short supply here.

Wherever the abbot goes, people gather around him. They invite him into their ruined homes and make tea for him. He comforts them without saying much. He is simply there for them.

He takes us to the port. Here, too, houses have been demolished, roofs have been torn off, walls have collapsed. The ferry from Rangoon is moored at the pier where police loaded it two days ago with goods "made in Myanmar." Helpers are carrying bottled water from the ferry as well as a few bags of rice and fruit. Soldiers stand on the wharf with machine guns slung over their shoulders, keeping a watchful eye on every movement. This is what aid from the junta looks like. "First they put the goods in storage," the abbot tells us. "Then they carefully consider what they will distribute to whom. That process can take days. There won't be enough for everyone anyway."

The abbot talks to the owner of a boatyard, who manages to rustle up some gasoline and helps us get into a rusty tub of a boat. The abbot squats down in his dark red robe, holds on to the railing, and stares into the muddy brown water. Occasionally he points to the shore, noting yet another body, but for the most part he doesn't say anything. This is the first time since the storm that he has seen his city from out on the river. What he sees causes him to fall silent.

The bodies are bloated, the skin yellow and covered with black boils. Every wave washes them a little closer to shore. Some have become tangled in the reeds. A severed leg sticks out from between tree roots. Survivors walk along the shore, holding cloths over their noses in an attempt to ward off the sickly sweet stench given off by the decaying bodies. Just a few meters away people fish, wash their clothing, and cook their last rice reserves in tin pots.

Tha Mynt stands on a small island of alluvial land. His village once consisted of 80 bamboo huts; now only five are still standing. Of the 400 people who once lived here, half are now dead. Tha Mynt stands at the water's edge. His T-shirt is torn and he is barefoot. Neighbors sit on the ridgepole of his hut, helping him cover the roof again, driving splinters of wood into the beams instead of nails. They are burning debris from demolished huts and rice stocks spoiled by the floodwaters.

Tha Mynt tells us they had no inkling that anything bad was coming the night the storm struck. They hadn't been given any warning, There's no electricity in the villages, often not even a radio. When the wind started blowing and the rain began, they took shelter in their huts. When the latter started collapsing, they jumped into the river, where the water came up to their necks, and clung to the trunks of palm trees. The women tied their babies to their backs with cloths. But the storm tore at the cloths and ripped the babies loose.

The next morning, Tha Mynt says, they sat there, numb from shock and exhaustion. Their possessions, their Buddha figures, the money they had earned from the rice harvest and kept in tin boxes in their Buddha shrine, had all been carried off by the floodwaters. They sent their wives and children to stay with relatives in the city and then pushed the bodies of the dead villagers and drowned water buffalo into the water so that they would be carried away too. There was nothing else they could do.

What's going to happen now? Tha Mynt shrugs his shoulders. "First of all we need a roof over our head and something to eat," he says. "Then we'll see where it goes from there." Why isn't he crying? Why doesn't he express despair or complain? Why isn't he angry? The abbot says that the people here see the storm as fate, a sign of bad karma. But they blame the junta. They see the storm as punishment for the fact that the army brutally beat and killed monks last September when they protested against the regime. But in the end, as always, the brunt of the suffering is borne by the general population.

The abbot orders the boat to continue upriver. He wants to get a picture of the extent of the horror. But now he doesn't utter another word.

The captain of the boat is a boy, barely 16 years old. He wears a baseball cap with the image of Che Guevara's face on it and has a cigar stuck behind one ear. He says that further upriver there are even more bodies floating in the water -- so many that it is hard to get through them in a boat. Initially survivors had paddled up there in their dugouts to look for family members. Now the smell of rotting bodies is so unbearable that it is making people sick to their stomach and they are hardly able to identify the dead any longer.

Dead bodies usually have no meaning for Buddhists, the young captain says. But even he found the sight very distressing.

'If No One is Helping those People, We Burmese Have to Help'

The captain stops at a rice mill. The miller and his family survived the cyclone only because they took refuge in the rice storage area that night. They sat on top of a pile of rice sacks, bunched together, shivering with cold and fear, and said Buddhist prayers all night. After the storm subsided and the sun came out again -- there was a clear blue sky the first few days after the storm -- the miller's daughter gave birth. The baby was very premature, but is healthy, at least for the time being.

The abbot indicates he wants to leave. He shows us a winding path to a bridge on the edge of the city. He opens his umbrella, which is dark red like his robe, gives us a parting smile and disappears into the twilight.

A few kilometers outside the city, the two Burmese women are still waiting for the trucks loaded with rice and other supplies. They will return to Rangoon tonight, extremely frustrated at not having accomplished what they set out to do.

On the way back, the two Burmese men who accompanied us from Rangoon to Bogalay start making calls on their cell phones. What they have seen has shocked them. They want to do something now, overcome the feeling of powerlessness.

They call people who have money and influence -- prominent monks, Chinese and Russian businessmen staying at major international hotels. They spend hours asking for donations of cash, clothing, and food. While we were on the boat they took pictures of bodies, using the zoom to get close-up images. It wasn't easy for them to do it, but they knew they were going to need the pictures to show prospective donors, "otherwise they won't believe us and won't give us anything." The next day they want to rent a truck and drive back to Bogalay. "As long as no one else is helping those people," they say, "we Burmese have to help them."

We can see the Shwedagon Pagoda, Rangoon's most famous landmark, gleaming golden in the distance. The damage the storm did to the roof was repaired very quickly and it is again illuminated by yellow floodlights at night. Aid organization personnel wearing heavy boots and cargo pants can be seen sitting and standing around in hotel lobbies. They're waiting to get started on a mission that will probably never take place. There can't do anything until the junta gives them permission. Western diplomats and United Nations delegations are poring over mission plans and preparing for meetings in Naypyidaw, the newly declared administrative capital. They haven't given up yet.

General Than Shwe, the leader of the junta, remains in seclusion in Naypyidaw most of the time. The general is a superstitious man who doesn't trust anyone but his astrologer. He has chosen to isolate himself from his own people as well as from the rest of the world in his bizarre new capital.

Very little information is available about his life, but a 10-minute video of his daughter's lavish state wedding can be seen on the Internet video portal YouTube. It's a decadent spectacle showing his offspring with her hair full of diamonds and wearing a wedding dress made of the finest silks. There is a five-story wedding cake and plenty of champagne for the guests. Amidst all this splendor, the dictator can be seen joylessly feasting while outside his people are starving.

Naypyidaw is located 350 kilometers north of Rangoon, in the middle of the jungle. It might just as well be on another planet.